House Panel Approves NIST Restructuring Bill

Number of Labs Would be Cut to 6 from 10
House Panel Approves NIST Restructuring Bill
(Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect Wednesday's vote by a House subcommittee.)

A House subcommittee Wednesday approved by a voice vote a bill to restructure the National Institute of Standards and Technology that would reduce to six from 10 the number of laboratories - the main research and development components at NIST - and promote the NIST director to undersecretary for standards and technology in the Department of Commerce.

The legislation, H.R.5074, approved by the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation would basically keep intact the Information Technology Laboratory, the NIST unit that provides IT and cybersecurity guidance to federal agencies. In fact, the restructuring of the other labs is patterned after the interdisciplinary way the IT Lab functions.

Under provisions of the bill - a component of the America Competes Act - the main research components of NIST would consist of the:

    Information Technology Laboratory, which would develop and disseminate standards, measurements and testing capabilities for interoperability, security, usability and reliability of information technologies, including cybersecurity standards and guidelines for federal agencies, American industry and the public.

    Physical Measurement Laboratory, which would realize and disseminate the national standards for length, mass, time and frequency, electricity, temperature, force and radiation.

    Engineering Laboratory, which would develop and disseminate advanced manufacturing and construction technologies to the American manufacturing and construction industries.

    Material Measurement Laboratory, which would serve as the national reference laboratory in biological, chemical and material sciences and engineering.

    Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, a national shared-use facility for nanoscale fabrication and measurement, whose mission would be to develop innovative nanoscale measurement and fabrication capabilities to support government and private-sector researchers.

    NIST Center for Neutron Research, a national shared-use facility, whose mission is to provide neutron-based measurement capabilities to researchers from industry, universities, NIST and other federal agencies.

NIST's current 10 labs focus on developing measures and standards in building and fire research, chemical science and technology, electronics and electrical engineering, information technology, manufacturing engineering, materials science and engineering, nanoscale science and technology, neutron research, physics and technology services.

Multidisciplinary Approach

"The current lab structure of 10 operating units is more than 20 years old and no longer reflects today's technology sectors or the inherent and increasing multi-disciplinary nature of technology," Rep. David Wu, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the subcommittee and is sponsor of the NIST provision. "This bill authorizes a lab structure of six operating units to promote efficiency and a cross-disciplinary culture at NIST."

In testimony before the subcommittee last month, NIST Director Patrick Gallagher (pictured above) said the current laboratory structure emphasized management of research of portfolios and not the dissemination of the research to government agencies and businesses, which diminishes NIST's responsibilities. "This is a major concern for me because it can make us less customer focused, since many of our industry stakeholders interact with NIST through these measurement, standards, and technology activities," he said.

Gallagher said the challenges NIST tackles are multidisciplinary, and a restructuring must take that into account. "Currently, all major multidisciplinary NIST programs involve more than one laboratory, and several programs involve as many as seven," he testified. "Coordination of these major programmatic responsibilities increases the friction in the system, making it more difficult to address these challenges efficiently and effectively."

That's not the case with the IT Lab, which engages in a wide range of missions such as cybersecurity, health IT and voting technology. If enacted, other NIST labs would take the same multidisciplinary approach.

If the bill is enacted as drafted, Gallagher would get an automatic promotion to undersecretary and would not need to be reconfirmed. With an undersecretary at its helm, NIST would be on equal footing with other Commerce Department entities, including the Bureau of Industry and Security, Economics and Statistics Administration, International Trade Administration, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and Patent and Trademark Office, all headed by under secretaries.

The legislation would give the institute director sweeping authority to revise the organization of the scientific and technical research and laboratory programs at NIST, provided the director notifies the appropriate House and Senate oversight committees within 60 days.

In his testimony, Gallagher proposed restructuring the director's office, eliminating the deputy director's post, but adding three associate directors. Gallagher characterized the current structure of the director's office as unstable, contending it's too small to effectively manage and integrate NIST's diverse programs that carry out its mission.

The subcommittee approved an amendment to the bill to clarify that the cybersecurity standards and guidelines developed by NIST are to be used voluntarily by private industry.

The NIST restructuring measure is the third and final subcommittee markup moving toward reauthorization of the America Competes Act. Two other subcommittees of the House Science and Technology Committee approved measures to foster energy innovation and research and development. The full committee will meet next Wednesday to consider a final version of the America Competes Act, with a goal to bring the full package through the House of Representatives by Memorial Day.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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